Winners, losers and biggest questions from NFL free agency Day 1

And so we were already on to backup quarterbacks by late Wednesday afternoon, less than two hours after the official opening of the NFL’s 2018 league year and free agency signing period. Trevor Siemian was heading to the Minnesota Vikings. Tom Savage was signing with the New Orleans Saints. Chad Henne was visiting the Tennessee Titans.

Yes, the unprecedented activity — or, at least, reporting of said activity — during the three-day negotiating period rendered a near drama-free beginning to the free-agent market. More than half of our top 100 free agents have new contract agreements, and by Wednesday evening, NFL teams were picking through a second wave of less-pursued players.

We hashed through some of the biggest moves late Tuesday night. So, while we have a moment, let’s take a bigger-picture look at the proceedings since:

Quick links:Barnwell’s grades | Schefter’s news | Signings by team | Top 100 free agentsInsider

Baffling questions in Arizona

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim has a lot of fans around the NFL who respect his work in digging the franchise out of a decadeslong competitive hole. But I’m having a hard time understanding what he and the franchise are doing this offseason or how in the world the Cardinals will be competitive in 2018.

It doesn’t take a football savant to question the team’s plan at quarterback. There is no basis for counting on Sam Bradford, who aggravated his knee condition by taking a bad step in Week 1 last season and played only two quarters thereafter. Mike Glennon, meanwhile, bombed last season with the Bears in his best chance to establish himself as even a spot starter.

What does the agreement with Bradford, and the Cardinals’ reported plans to also sign Glennon tell us? They better not be done looking for quarterbacks.

But the most egregious gaffe, and one that I don’t think has generated enough national scrutiny, is the departure of safety Tyrann Mathieu. As a rule, NFL teams should never let themselves get into the position of parting ways with their best young talent. Mathieu has an injury history, but he rebounded last season to play 16 games. He is still 25 years old and is probably one of the Cardinals’ three best players.

ESPN’s Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss noted that the Cardinals were in a tough situation with the monster contract Mathieu signed in 2016. If that’s the case, then it’s still on the team for writing a contract that couldn’t sustain itself for two years. Maybe there’s something we don’t know about Mathieu’s health. But if we have the complete information, well, the Cardinals botched their future with a transcendent player.

It didn’t get as much attention as some of the quarterback moves this week, but Solder’s move from the New England Patriots to the New York Giants was a massive and multifaceted earthquake. (Can an earthquake have multiple facets? I say yes. Discuss.)

Finding competent left tackles is one of the most difficult personnel assignments in football, and the Giants blew through the top of the offensive line market to get Solder. His annual average of $15.5 million is 17 percent more than the next-highest paid player at the position: Russell Okung of the Los Angeles Chargers ($13.25 million).

Overall, the Giants are paying Solder $62 million over four seasons. Keep in mind that the Giants obliterated the market for a player who has never been elected to the Pro Bowl and who was reported to be considering retirement earlier this season.

But the story isn’t simply the massive offer it took to lure him. The Patriots are now without a true left tackle for the first time this decade. As ESPN’s Patriots reporter Mike Reiss lays out, there are no obvious replacements on the roster. And with their spot at No. 31 in the draft, the Patriots will be limited in their opportunity to find a rookie who is ready to start right away.

We often give coach Bill Belichick the benefit of the doubt when it comes to otherwise questionable personnel decisions. He has proven before that he usually knows what he’s doing.

But it could certainly be argued that left tackle is one position worth losing financial discipline for — especially when your championship window is based on keeping a soon-to-be 41-year-old quarterback upright and healthy. The Patriots are going to have to find another left tackle, and the Giants’ massive expenditure — from a team that has the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, no less — shows how hard that can be.

Patience always wins

For years, former NFL executive Joe Banner has preached that players should resist early contract extension offers. His theory makes sense: The open market or the franchise tag is the most direct path to a deal of maximum value.

The risks — an injury or NFL discipline — are exaggerated, Banner has argued. The 2018 market has supported that viewpoint.

Receiver Allen Robinson tore an ACL during his 2017 contract year, but the Chicago Bears signed him to an three-year contract worth $42 million. He’ll earn an annual average of $14 million, just below the franchise number for wide receivers, and be back on the market when he is 27 years old.

Center Weston Richburg, who missed most of 2017 because of a concussion, signed a quick five-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers that included $16.5 million in full guarantees. Pass-rusher Trent Murphy, who tore two knee ligaments last year and was hit with a four-game NFL suspension, got a three-year deal from the Buffalo Bills for $21 million. Bradford, who played six quarters last season because of a degenerative knee condition, will get $20 million from the Cardinals.

The lure of early money is understandable. In some cases, it’s best for the player at that moment in his life. But those who push it off can be rewarded.

Value of versatile running backs

The two most lucrative free-agent running back contracts have gone to Jerick McKinnon (San Francisco) and Dion Lewis (Tennessee). Neither has a 1,000-yard rushing season to his name.

The value of traditional between-the-tackles tailbacks has plummeted over the past decade. Instead, teams have shifted toward runners who are equally comfortable catching passes from either the backfield or even from the outside receiver positions. McKinnon caught 142 passes over the past four seasons for the Vikings, 94 of them in the past two. Lewis, meanwhile, caught 85 passes for the New England Patriots over the past three seasons.

At the moment, McKinnon’s average of $7.5 million per season is higher than all but four running backs in the NFL. That list includes Pittsburgh Steelers tailback Le’Veon Bell, who is on a $14.5 million franchise tag, along with the Atlanta FalconsDevonta Freeman ($8.25 million) and the Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy ($8.01 million). Lewis’ average of $5 million is tied for ninth.

The debate raged for months in Minnesota: How much better, and how much more valuable, was Cousins compared to Keenum? After all, Keenum led the Vikings to a 13-3 regular-season record and a run to the NFC Championship Game last season, all while compiling the NFL’s second-best Total QBR (69.7).

We now have some preliminary data to start the comparison. The Vikings will guarantee Cousins $84 million over three years to secure his services. Keenum, meanwhile, agreed to a two-year deal with the Denver Broncos that would pay him $36 million, with $25 million of it fully guaranteed.

In other words, Keenum was secured with less than a third of the guaranteed money it took to attract Cousins. Who would you rather have? Cousins at $84 million guaranteed or Keenum at $25 million? The conversation starts there.

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